Wednesday, August 19, 2009

When it comes to majors, 2009 proves to be dramatic year

CHASKA, Minn. Storylines abound from the exciting finish of the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Sunday.
There is no question that Y.E. Yang’s victory, the first major golf championship won by an Asian-born man, is the most historical accomplishment of this season or any other in a while.
The South Korean chased down Tiger Woods, the most dominant player in modern golf. It was the first time in 15 tries that Woods had led a major after 54 holes and lost.
Yang was emotional in victory. He cried when the subject was raised about his victory being the first of its kind by an Asian-born player.
I stood 3 feet from him in the Hazeltine clubhouse during the champagne toast to the champion. It was clear that he realized the magnitude of his victory and what it might mean in Korea.
Maybe John Kim of Turner Sports said it best.
“Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998. Look at the impact that had on the number of Korean players on the LPGA Tour today. People thought that Tiger Woods winning a major would do the same for the PGA Tour, yet he is still the only African-American on the Tour.”
Yang’s viewpoint of what his win might mean was this:
“I hope this win would be, if not as significant, something quite parallel to an impact both to golf in Korea as well as golf in Asia so that all young golfers, across Asia, would build their dreams and expand their horizons.”
Interestingly, when informed through his interpreter that he was the first man in golf to take down Woods when leading a major after 54 holes, Yang stood emotionless. No reaction.
“I saw a lot of players fold when they would play with him, so I would watch on TV and come up with a mock strategy on how to win,” Yang said. “When my chance came, I thought that I could always play a good round of golf, and Tiger, who is great, could always have a bad day.”
A couple of things come to mind. Does Yang’s inability to communicate well in English place him in a vacuum when competing on a stage such as Sunday’s at Hazeltine? Are the galleries, which were openly partial to Woods, a non-factor to someone who understands little English?
An official with the Yang-Woods group indicated that someone in the gallery projected a loud cough in the middle of Yang’s backswing on his second shot into hole No. 18. Yang’s mental discipline didn’t allow it to be a distraction.
And what about Woods? Is he now exposed? Is there a crack in the armor?
This is the first calendar year since 2004 that he has failed to win a major. Despite missing the cut in the British Open, he finished tied for sixth in the Masters and U.S. Open before Sunday’s runner-up finish in the PGA. Not a bad year, but even Woods proved that he can be human when being the pursuer.
Interestingly enough, Hazeltine will be gassing its greens and redoing the putting surfaces this summer as it prepares for the 2016 Ryder Cup.
The greens are overrun with poa annua, an annual bluegrass that produces an irregular putting surface. As I stood on the 18th green for Sunday’s awards presentation, I could not help but notice the high concentration of poa annua in the greens.
Woods had difficulty making putts Sunday. Many players experienced the same problem all week. Steve Hulka caddies for English-man Brian Davis, and he told me, “You could read the putt, hit it perfectly, and the ball would do something different.”
Despite the putting surfaces, Woods hit uncharacteristic shots into the 15th, 16th and 18th greens, leaving him with no real good birdie opportunities. He hit a great shot at the flag on the 17th, but it landed over the green.
For the first time ever, Woods looked mortal. He was trailing Yang, and he was now the one who looked to be forcing things.
It was strange to see Woods out of control.
I was positioned a few feet off the back of the 18th green when Yang hit his second shot. He had to carry the ball out of the rough and over some large trees to a flag 204 yards away. Yang used a hybrid club, and as soon as the ball landed on the green, you knew it was one of golf’s great shots.
This year has produced arguably the most exciting collection of major championships to date — the three-way playoff at the Masters; the rain and Lucas Glover outlasting Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open; and then Tom Watson falling just shy of being the oldest player to ever win a major at the British Open. Yang outdueling Woods at the PGA was a fitting finale to 2009.
For the 37-year-old Yang, the impact of his victory will resonate on the other side of our world. At the same time, he once again proved why nothing is a sure bet in sports.
And for Woods? Now that he has lost a few, he will be revered more than ever by America’s golfing public. We embrace our heroes. We hurry to tear them down and then rush to their side when they prove their vulnerability.
All in all, it has been one of golf’s best 12-month runs dating back to the U.S. victory at the Ryder Cup in September. It will be difficult to top 2009.

Photo Caption: CHASKA, Minn.
Storylines abound from the exciting finish of the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Sunday.

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